The Common Good

Hope and Action in Hard Times

In these times of foreclosures, tight budgets, and shrinking funds, community builders feel like Jesus' disciples with five loaves and two fishes and thousands to feed. During an earlier time before I retired from Bethel New Life, I reflected on doing more with less, and share this now.

Discover God's abundance of skills, resources, connections, and hope in our midst, starting with what we have (like our own five loaves and two fishes). In Bethel's low income community, we discovered good caregivers and many seniors, and Bethel now employ 250 caregivers to help seniors stay in their homes. We discovered a transit stop, and built a transit related center with day care, employment, and commercial enterprises. The process of discovery of both people and community assets is carefully laid out in Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets, by John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, and The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts, by Luther Snow. The process energizes people and organizations to start with what they have.

Be good stewards of what we have. Be clear about our mission and priorities and then see if activities and projects are the best way to achieve desired outcomes. Rearrange, consolidate. Clarity about mission and outcomes makes it easier to prioritize when cuts are necessary. What's most important in helping people move out of poverty? Bethel answered that question with a renewed focus on employment services, creating jobs, and asset building (financial education, etc).

Who else is doing what? Are there some ways to partner with others (City Colleges, churches, corporations, other groups) to achieve the outcomes? The Raleigh Jobs Partnership involves employers needing good employees, the community college for pre-employment training, and the churches to recruit and provide the faith-based content-a win-win outcome.

Explore new possibilities, such as income producing opportunities. Build in larger developer fees (or share them with a for-profit) in your projects or develop and own a building which you lease out to businesses. If thinking about operating a business (franchise, shop, etc), carefully explore because it is hard to run an income producing business and retain the same values you might have. Be clear about what your priority for the business is, whether it's job creation, cash income, etc.

When we follow God's commands to "feed the hungry," God has a way of making clear to us how five loaves and two fishes feed the five thousand.

Mary NelsonMary Nelson is president emeritus of Bethel New Life, a faith-based community development corporation on the West Side of Chicago. She is also a board member of Sojourners.

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